Terroir. I’m allowed to talk about it for once. For the man behind it is Rob Arnold, distiller-scientist, and the man who has literally written the book on terroir and whiskey. Buy it!
Don’t roll your eyes at the back. But we’re going to talk about grain, just a little bit – the thing that whiskey is made from. That’s really all terroir is about, of course: the grain; those influences of soil, microclimate, and place on the growth of a plant and the flavours a distiller is able to extract. Nothing to do with the stills or the barrels or the yeast or the people, though those things of course are also very important and do influence flavours greatly. But that isn’t the same thing as we’re talking about today.
Naturally some people care about it, some people don’t. That’s fine, each to their own. My only note is that I have found – having observed two spirits communities – it skews towards the latter in whisky, but skews towards the former in rum, where there appears to be more open-mindedness, more curiosity, when it comes to the plant, and I often wonder why those different attitudes exist.
I am interested in these things, and have been for about a decade. Back in 2012 when Malt was just a solo blog, I wrote about it and was interested about it. (The post is awful and very old; forgive me.) But it’s only been more recently that we’ve started to see a niche interest become more popular from a production point of view – which is to say that more distillers are interested in the grain. At least if not quite the same as wine production or cider production, then certainly in that idea of grain grown in a particular place. Local grain, like whisky used to be in the old days. Or at least, in the sense that it’s going against the larger corporate mechanisms of the industry and asking slightly different questions of what whisky could be.
Of course, those who are not so interested in the technicalities of terroir are probably find it at least a little appealing that the ingredients are sourced locally. Is that fair to say? Or even just grown in a known location.
Local grain, terroir, whatever you want to call it, doesn’t make a whisky better automatically – attention must be paid to all parts of the process. There’s a good chance though that if you care about knowing where the ingredients come from, that producer wants to care for it through the process, rather than lose that essence.
It’s safe to say that there isn’t too much of this type of ingredients-focussed thinking at larger levels of the whisky industry, outside of craft niches, so I was very curious when I saw what Rob Arnold was up to at Firestone & Roberston distillery.
Rob and I have spoken a little over the last couple of years, so caveats galore – he’s a good egg, this is a small whisky world – but he sent me a bottle of their TX Barrel Proof Bourbon. Rob’s distillery, based at Fort Worth, Texas, was picked up by Pernod Ricard in 2019 for a lot of cash, so in essence this is now a working example of a corporately owned distillery that does thing the local way. It should not compute, right?
But I decided to use this article not to talk about big company stuff. Instead, we will keep things simple, and focus on the ingredients of the whiskey itself – grain, yeast, wood. With that in mind I reached out to Rob with a just a few questions, by way of introduction to this Texan distillery – and what went into the bottle.
Malt: Start at the beginning, the ingredients for this particular whiskey. Corn, wheat and barley. This was grown by a fellow named John Sawyer – is that right? What can you tell us about the grower and his relationship with the distillery? How did it come about, and how unique are these grains – his grains – to the environment?
Rob: Yes all of our grains come from Sawyer Farms, which is a 4th generation Texas farm in Hill County run by John Sawyer. I met him back in 2014 while giving a tour to a group of farmers. He is passionate about whiskey and the grains grown to make it. We did a study to show what flavor compounds were unique to his farm. See the image below.
How big is the farm – and can you tell us a little about the environment?
It’s about 4,000 acres. Soil is Houston Black Clay. It’s dryland farming, but this area of North-Central Texas usually receives a suitable amount of rainfall. Corn is planted in middle February and harvested in middle August.
Can you share a little on the flavour variances you’ve found in your distillates so far, between harvest to harvest – for those that make up this particular mashbill?
Sorry I don’t have anything distinct on harvest-to-harvest variations. We’ve been constantly improving our processes since 2014 that it would be hard to say something concrete about harvest-to-harvest differences. What I can tell you is our distillate became much cleaner, fruitier, and sweet-corn forward once we moved away from commodity grain and to Sawyer Farms grain. For the record, the mashbill is 74% yellow dent corn, 14% soft red winter wheat, and 12% malted barley.
Terroir is obvious to the two of us as we’ve practical first-hand experience. But there remain many doubters about the subject. What would you say to anyone as of yet unconvinced by the influence of terroir in whiskey?
Read my book! But in all seriousness, it’s important to remember that flavor is a complex tapestry, and anytime you pull a thread—be it from grain variety, farm location, yeast strain, distillation method, or oak maturation policy—you will shift flavor in some way. Terroir isn’t about making better whiskey. It’s one very important tool for creating distinct flavors that are specific to a place.
And for anyone that says whiskey is too “manufactured” to taste terroir, or that distillation destroys nuances from terroir: Remember that matter is never destroyed, and flavor compounds are matter. You might capture, manipulate, and concentrate flavor compounds due to the whiskey-making process, but you do not destroy those that originate in the grain.
Yeast transforms the flavours derived from the grains – so why have you settled on the strain described as from a Texan pecan?
We were the first distiller to isolate and utilize a wild yeast to make bourbon since 1933. The fact that it came from a pecan was pure chance. I isolated hundreds of strains from different fruits, nuts, seeds, and tress from a ranch in Glen Rose, Texas. The one I isolated from the pecan nut just happened to possess not just a robustness to the environment of a bourbon mash, but also produced very distinct sweet spice and dark fruit flavors. We know from chemical analyses that 4-vinylguaicol (clove aromas) is a prominent flavor compound in our new-make bourbon. Not all yeast can metabolize ferulic acid into 4-vinylguaicol. But notably, Bavarian wheat strains and those used to make Saisons can.
Finally, wood – what are the specifications for your barrels, and can you share where they’re sourced from?
We use new, char 3 American white oak barrels. We have drastically changed our barrel policy in recent years to mandate 18 month seasoned wood and the incorporation of barrels that were toasted prior to light charring. But the bourbon you tasted was barreled before those new policies were put in place.
Malt: thanks for sharing those insights, Rob.
Right, now we know what’s in this bottle, we’ll get to the bourbon in question, which was bottled at 63.6% ABV.
TX Barrel Proof Bourbon – Review
Colour: Henna, with a slight pinkish hue.
On the nose: lovely bright morello cherries and vanilla. Blackcurrant syrup, damsons, then cinnamon and nutmeg. After a time comes toasted chestnuts, and a surprisingly floral note. Back into this really pleasing, big toast note – charred wholemeal bread. The grain really expresses itself.
In the mouth: really lovely texture; quite aggressive woodiness here, but the spirit can cope. Very spicy on the finish. There’s a toasted hazelnut note that really works – when I first sampled it the whisky was a bit lively on that front, so it needs time to settle after transportation. It’s a natural product. Blackcurrant jam, cinnamon, really quite autumnal and hugely warming. Meaty. Candied fruits, maple syrup. I’d opt for not adding water to this, despite the strength: it feels very good just as it is.
Local does not equal good, terroir does not necessarily mean good. There is something very pleasing about drinking a product knowing precisely where the ingredients come from. But here we have a really solid, enjoyable bourbon, with lots of heft, lots of flavour, and actual provenance. Most importantly, it just feels a little different than many bourbons I’ve tasted in recent years. This ticks a lot of my boxes – spiritually, flavour-wise, in every sense.
Very much recommended – especially at the $50 price point.
As a final comment, Rob Arnold has published an academic paper on bourbon and terroir. It’s certainly worth your time. I particularly like the notes on maturation. If everything tasted the same after maturation, then it figures most distilleries’ output would taste the same. Clearly, we all know that not to be the case. The question about flavours from grain and environmental variance, and whether or not maturation masks it, is highlighted in Rob’s report.
In the future it will be important to confirm that flavor differences in new-make are maintained during and after oak barrel maturation. Experiences from a large two-variety batch study suggest that flavor nuances due to variety and terroir are not masked during or after maturation in oak, and in fact may be greater, but this will need to be confirmed in future replicated trials.
I think this is an exciting whisky world for curious minds.
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